Clementine Ford: Good Riddance To White Ribbon

At long last, the White Ribbon Foundation is no more.

The heralded anti-violence charity did very little to effectively address the horrendous issue of men’s violence against women in this country.  It purported to institute effective avenues for change in schools, businesses and through its many ambassadors, but its programs and events were largely surface-level, box-ticking initiatives -- and the foundation on the whole amounted to a useless exercise in self-promotion.   

It did excel in producing glossy, highly-stylised content to encourage people to donate money to its coffers. All the while, it sought to involve men -- some of whom's behaviour towards women later proved to be "inconsistent" with its core principles -- as the visible face of the organisation. While from 2014, men were subject to online training, an interview and a referee check in order to gain entry, prior to that there were no tests in place to determine what, if anything at all, they did to fundamentally address gender inequality and violence in this country. As one critic put it, "the hurdles are so low, even the neighbourhood cat could leap over them".

At long last, the White Ribbon Foundation is no more. (Image: Getty)

Oh, they donned their white ribbons on November 22 and turned up to morning teas (largely organised and catered for by women, who also were the ones most likely to do the cleaning up) and perhaps even made a donation back to the organisation.

But what of substance was actually achieved?

The organisation points to participants' post-program evaluations, which overwhelming say the training gave them "foundational knowledge" of men's violence against women and the ability to "integrate respectful relationships/violence prevention" and to "raise awareness" of the issue, on what was likely an 'agree or disagree' style feedback form .

But what of quantifiable evidence?

An independent study measuring the success of the 'Breaking the Silence' school campaign pointed to "changes in behaviour and culture, to some extent" as its "major achievement" -- but also said that change "cannot be quantified" without additional study.

While others may sugar-coat the reality, I'll say it bluntly. The major reason for White Ribbon's ineffectiveness is because too many people -- a majority, it seems -- are unwilling to name the fundamental source of violence and inequality towards women in this country.

It is men. That is the reason.

Of course, we’re not supposed to talk plainly about what misogyny is and where it springs from. In my experience, the fight for women’s empowerment is expected to operate as somehow separate to the reality of the world. The general public will not tolerate conversations about women’s disadvantage that accurately name the source and instigators of this disadvantage -- men. Instead, we must pepper everything we say with disclaimers and caveats.

Of course we know that not all men are like this. In fact, most men are wonderful and amazing and love women and would never, ever, ever do anything that would hurt a woman. In fact, how dare you even suggest that this could be anything other than the absolute truth! It’s such a tiny, tiny, tiny proportion of men who hurt women and in fact they can’t even be said to be men at all! They’re monsters! Evil monsters! Evil monsters who hurt women, but in tiny, almost statistically invisible numbers!

In fact they can’t even be said to be men at all! (Image: Getty)

This insistence on excusing men -- in fact, on erasing them from the picture and reality of women’s disadvantage entirely -- bears extremely dangerous and frustrating consequences. Women aren’t oppressed by ideologies or thoughts. We are oppressed by patriarchy. The agents of patriarchy are overwhelmingly men, some of them in possession of more power than others, but all of them operating in a patriarchy differently to how women are able to.

This is the reality, and it does us no good to pretend otherwise.

We cannot treat the source of women’s disadvantage as some kind of amorphous gas or inanimate object. ‘The economy’ doesn’t oppress women. ‘sexual violence’ doesn’t harm women. ‘A lack of access to reproductive health services’ doesn’t entrap women. ‘Attitudes’ don’t beat and kill women.

These things are all oppressive tools used to disadvantage women, but they are enshrined by patriarchy which is the structural power source used by men.

Men economically disadvantage women. Men rape women. Men beat women and kill them. (In the last fortnight alone, five women have died in Australia, allegedly at the hands of men.) Men deny women access to reproductive health services (and this is overwhelmingly easy to do when men also deny women access to political power). Men deny girls access to education. Men and male-led religions force girls into early marriages and motherhood.

It is men who work together, both consciously and unconsciously, to keep women out of political decision making. It is overwhelmingly men and the system that benefits them that dismisses claims of sexual assault as fiction -- that allows men accused of multiple sexual assaults to rise to an office as high as the President of the United States, who then introduces measures that catastrophically deny women in both America and the outside world access to reproductive health care, abortion and family planning.

Arguments like these always result in a lot of spluttering and anger from people who don’t want to address the reality of men’s violence. And it’s attitudes like that which allowed White Ribbon to exist as it did for so long, bloated and useless and exploiting a genuinely catastrophic problem in order to justify its own existence.

The White Ribbon Foundation represented a broader social desire to want to excuse men from accepting responsibility for the violence women suffer at their hands. For years, the gloss and temperate niceness of it all drew much-needed funds away from other organisations that were doing the hard and necessary work of actually intervening in men’s behaviour and naming the problem for what it is.

Good bloody riddance. (Image: Getty)

And why? Because we still cater to men’s feelings, and to the feelings of people who want desperately to make sure no men whatsoever are harmed in the process of stopping women from being killed.

It’s telling that when we talk about the extensive harm women suffer under patriarchy, all over the world, that we have also been so comprehensively conditioned to step gently around men’s feelings in the having of these conversations.

What this results in are superficial, meaningless nods to women’s empowerment without the follow through of addressing the cause for any disempowerment. It’s an exercise in branding that allows corporations, communities and even individuals to pretend that they care about women while refusing to really do anything substantial about it or even acknowledge the ongoing dynamics of organising these campaigns, and it’s one the White Ribbon Foundation was very effective at for far too long.

But White Ribbon is over, finally and forever. Good bloody riddance.